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Phone-Based Infectious Disease Diagnostics Being Developed

Aedes albopictus mosquito

Aedes albopictus mosquito, one of those responsible for spreading West Nile and chikungunya viruses (CDC.gov)

8 Nov. 2019. An engineering lab is building a system for diagnosing viral infectious diseases with blood samples analyzed by a smartphone add-on. The project by the micro- and nanotechnology lab at University of Illinois in Urbana, is funded by a four-year award from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of National Institutes of Health, with $448,000 funded for the first year.

A team led by electrical and bio-engineering professor Brian Cunningham aims to create a hand-held system that can analyze a drop of blood in 30 minutes, and report the presence of disease-causing viruses, such as Zika, dengue, or chikungunya from the blood sample. The system will use a smartphone’s rear-facing camera and Internet connectivity, supplemented by a clip-on microfluidic cartridge.

The cartridge is expected to carry out a reverse-transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification, or RT-LAMP, that analyzes RNA from the pathogen in real time. That analysis traces the RNA chemistry in the pathogen to its DNA source for identifying the responsible virus. The blood sample first interacts with paper test strips with dried pathogen primers made of short nucleic acid sequences, then the smartphone’s camera captures a video sequence of fluorescence images as the RT-LAMP analysis proceeds. The lab says preliminary data show its smartphone system returns results equivalent to conventional DNA analytical instruments, only the phone-based platform is expected to cost about $500.

“This device can substantially reduce the time, cost, and inconvenience of doing a standard lab test, while still incorporating all the controls that make the test valid,” says Cunningham in a university statement. “The information can then be shared immediately with an online health care provider who can make decisions about treatment.”

The researchers also need to create robust algorithms for analyzing the raw data that work under far from perfect conditions. “We will have to model the signal and noise,” adds Illinois electrical and computer engineering professor Minh Do, “due to many non-ideal conditions in the field, to come up with an optimal processing algorithm.” Do is a co-investigator on the project with Cunningham.

The team plans to build a prototype system for lab testing, then test the platform under real-world conditions in Brazil. The researchers are collaborating with colleagues at an infectious disease institute in Brazil for that part of the project.

Science & Enterprise reported in August 2017 on an earlier version of a smartphone-based diagnostics system from Cunningham’s lab called the TriAnalyzer. That device acts as a high-resolution spectrometer, a common piece of lab equipment that measures changes in light waves through a sample to determine its composition.

At the time of our story, Cunningham and the university received a patent on the technology but were still seeking an industry partner for licensing. Since then, the company Reliant Immune Diagnostics, now known as MDBox, in Austin, Texas licensed the TriAnalyzer technology and is developing it into smartphone-based telemedicine device.

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